Book review: When a Billion Chinese Jump

New book on China’s environmental crisis

Socialists organised in the parties of the CWI have highlighted potential barriers to exponential Chinese economic growth. One of these is the topic of this book, the environmental crisis that is current and growing. When a Billion Chinese Jump by the Guardian’s Asia environment correspondent, Jonathan Watts, takes the form of a dark, political travelogue. Watts travels through China’s provinces talking to Communist Party bureaucrats, capitalists, and ordinary farmers and workers about the impacts on their lives of the environmental changes wrought by the economic ‘miracle’.

Remote Yunnan straddles the border with Burma, Laos and Vietnam. It covers only 4% of Chinese land mass but contains over half of its vertebrates and plant species and 72% of its endangered animals. Since 1950 its forest cover has halved. Tight logging restrictions were introduced by the government in 1998, yet timber companies have logged 40 million square metres of forest since, almost fifty times the permitted limit. This highlights a theme of Watts’ book, even when the national government is moved into passing legislation to protect the environment; its writ often means little on the ground.

In Tibet, heroic feats of human engineering have seen a road and railway more closely link the province with Han-dominated China. The environmental impacts of this resulting growth is expected to mean a 3.4 degree calcius rise in temperature by 2050, which in turn is shrinking the permafrost and buckling the railway line. Sichuan is known for its reservoirs, of which there are 87,000 in China! The rush for development means that dams are sometimes built on seismic fault lines.

Watts arrived in the province four days after a magnitude 8 earthquake destroyed the Zipingpu dam. Seconds after the quake, four million people became homeless and 87,000 drowned in an area as big as Belgium. The government had been warned about the dangers of building the dam but the promise of a steady supply of water and 3.4kWh of annual electrical generating capacity for the provincial capital of Chengdu proved too tempting. Two years later the quake destroyed everything. Dam building was also a feature of the Great Leap Forward, an irresponsible frenzy of unrestricted and ill-thought out growth by the CCP bureaucracy during the 1950s. By 1980, 2,796 dams had failed with a combined death toll of 240,000.

Watts points out that hydroelectric plants appear to be green because they emit no carbon. However, local governments encourage chemical and smelting plants to move near dams as electricity generated in remote areas cannot be economically supplied to the national grid. These plants require power in the dry season too, so open coal-fired power plants are required and this means mines being dug nearby. “The result of this cycle is that clean energy turns dirty very quickly”.

The horrific industry of breeding rare animals for restaurants and pharmacies is exposed by Watts. At Xiongsen the number of captive tigers has gone from 12 in 1992 to 1,300 now which the wild population has collapsed from several thousand to fewer than fifty. Today there are 164 captive breeding centres farming rare species such as scorpions, black bears, musk deer and golden coin turtles.

Guangdong has a massive rubbish industry, based on recycling or outsourced dirty manufacturing from the advanced capitalist world. Container ships transport manufactured exports from China to the West and then return filled with the rubbish of the West. In the past, the return cargo was Indian-grown opium. It’s illegal in the EU and US to dump rubbish and recycling is promoted. In practice this means exporting rubbish to China, especially to Guangdong. The often toxic waste has health implications for locals. The amount of lead in the blood of children in Guiyu is 50% higher than US standards.

Watts explains that environmental concerns are the second most important driver of social unrest after illegal land seizures. In 2005, they led to 5,000 mass incidents, 128,000 smaller disputes and 500,000 letters and petitions. His account of a pitched battle he witnessed between 2,000 riot police and 20,000 villagers in Zhejiang is breath-taking. For several days the town was in the peoples’ hands until reinforcements arrived.

Watts explains that in Xinjiang, authorities see the biggest terrorist threat stemming from 36,000 ordinary people who had lost their investments in an ant-farming pyramid-selling scheme that had collapsed. “Salvador Dali could not have painted a more surreal picture of China’s business landscape”.

When a Billion Chinese Jump explains how the West has partially outsourced its pollution problems to China and, in turn, the coastal provinces have shifted the worst polluters to poorer western provinces. In 2007 the World Bank estimated the annual cost of pollution in China at 5.8% of GDP. Add on erosion, desertification, soil decline and environmental degradation and this figure rises to 8-12% of GDP “which would push China’s economy into reverse gear” claims Watts.

The urbanisation in China is the world’s fastest. Britain has five cities of over a million people, China has over 120 – most are places relatively unknown amongst Westerners eg Suqian, Suining, Xiantao and Xinghua. During the first quarter of this century, half of the world’s new buildings will be erected in China. 50,000 will be skyscrapers, equivalent to ten New Yorks! The builders of course are construction workers. Most live on site in huts. One building worker interviewed by Watts worked 11 hours a day for 50 yuan (A$7.40).

The chapter on Shanghai concentrates on the xiaobailing (white-collar princesses), the single women of the upper working class or middle class that drive internal consumption in China. The number of KFCs has risen from one in 1987 to 2,000 now in 400 Chinese cities. 15% of Chinese people are obese. The average Shanghai person owned two mobile phones, 1.7 air conditioners, 1.7 TV sets, more than one fridge and spent 14,761 yuan a year, about 70% higher than the rest of the country. Watts highlights the speed of this change: “my family in the UK had a phone three generations before my Shanghai contact, but her parents went online four years earlier than mine”.

Worst drought for half a century in Yunnan

The cesspit of China, environmentally-speaking, is Henan. 100 million people live in the area twice the size of Scotland. “It is the centre of poverty, cancer clusters, Aids, slave labour, skewed sex ratios due to selective abortions, birth defects, murder, counterfeiting and murder.”

From the 1980s, the local government encouraged rampant growth welcoming the worst polluters that other provinces rejected. The worse is probably the Lianhua Gourmet Powder Company, the biggest Chinese producer of monosodium glutamate food flavouring. Every day the plant discharges 120,000 tons of wastewater. Pollution slicks of up to 70 kms in length are common. Most of China’s 100 ‘cancer villages’ are found near these slicks.

Henan is also the centre of the Aids health scandal, where the poor sold their blood for cash. By 1995 Henan was a Chinese blood farm. “Plasma was extracted and remaining blood pumped back into the people’s veins…In the rush, basic hygiene procedures were sacrificed and the blood they got back wasn’t always entirely their own. As a result, innumerable donors became infected with HIV.”

Watts explains that the core of pollution comes from the coal industry that generates 69.5% of the country’s energy. This industry has seen 170,000 miners killed from tunnel collapses, explosions and floods since 1980 – a rate 30 times higher than in the US. The importance of coal to the economy explains China’s reluctance to agree to real carbon targets. “Between 2003 and 2008, the power sector expanded at a rate of more than two new coal-fired 600MW plants per week, adding more to the grid each year than Britain’s entire installed capacity after two centuries of development”. This puts the fight to stop another coal-fired power station in Victoria, Australia and recycling generally into some context!

The fight to save the planet from environmental self-destruction has to be linked to an international fight to overthrow both capitalism and the bureaucracy in China. Only then can a plan of production along sane and safe lines be democratically-developed by people’s governments. To demand real action on the environment from governments who protect and promote the polluters is utopian.

A future sane democratic and genuine socialist society in China would transform fuel into electricity or gas near the source and transfer it via power lines or pipes, as Watts himself argues for. Chinese farmers use twice as much fertiliser and insecticide as their US counterparts. “This includes arsenic to artificially boost crop yields and melamine to disguise the low level of protein in milk.” China is also now the biggest polluter of the Pacific Ocean with regular media reports of sewage, fertiliser and industrial waste being dumped and heavy metals accumulating in the mud and in the organs of fish.

This fascinating book is written by a journalist of quality and therefore the often depressing and fact-rich text is lightened by the touch of a first-class writer. Watts finishes with some political conclusions. He outlines the gradual shift to stiffer environmental legislation by the central government in Beijing. However, this is tempered by the fact the environment department lacks a national network and “at a regional level, environment departments continue to answer to local governments…who ignore the (central) state’s disclosure laws on pollution”.

For example, China has more nature reserves than any other country but “definitions of reserves are vague and penalties for violations so low that rules are easily circumvented by developers. Local governments are often hostile to reserves.” Another fact is that when nature reserves are created they are “not chosen because of the area’s rich ecology, but because of its collapsed economy”. China plants more trees that the rest of the world combined, but “the trouble is they tend to be monoculture plantations. They are not places where birds want to live”.

The destruction of native forests is driven by the fact that China is world’s biggest user of pulp and timber. “Despite the introduction of domestic logging controls in 1998, Chinese demand destroyed more forest than ever.” One legal expert claims that only 10% of China’s environmental laws are enforced. Watts claims that “China’s political system now exhibits the worst elements of dictatorship and democracy: power lies neither at the top nor the bottom, but within a middle class of developers, polluters and local officials whom it is difficult to hold to account.” However, a mass uprising of workers and farmers can change this.

But the early stages of government action to protect the environment are totally overshadowed by plans to produce liquid coal as an alternative to petrol and oil. “This technology could completely undermine efforts to put the country on a cleaner growth track”.

Flooding in China

When a Billion Chinese Jump exposes the sham ‘green’ housing estates created in some cities, mainly as a real estate gimmick. “The unflushed savings of water would be tiny in comparison with the lakes being gulped down by mining and coal liquification facilities”. Attempts at improving air quality in cities like Beijing involve shifting polluting plants to the inland provinces and replacing a dozen small dirty chimneys with a single towering smokestack. “China’s greenhouse-gas output will more than double between 2005 and 2020, despite the government’s promise to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy by more than 40%”.

When a Billion Chinese Jump adds to the growing library of recent books on the Chinese economic miracle and like all other offers no realistic solutions. Towards the end, Watt turns to Buddhism and Daoism as sources of potential answers. The real solution will stem from the Chinese people themselves who have yet to speak about the mess their leaders have taken the country. Despite its weaknesses in terms of conclusion, When a Billion Chinese Jump fills in another piece of the jig-saw of modern China.

When a Billion Chinese Jump

By Jonathan Watts

Faber and Faber, 2010

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February 2011